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Hello, Goodbye

[whitespace] David Pandori & Cindy Chavez
Christopher Gardner

Under the eight-year watch of David Pandori (left), District 3 has been a contentious, unpredictable seat on the San Jose City Council, a task only slightly daunting to newly elected Cindy Chavez.

As San Jose's District 3 council contrarian David Pandori leaves office, newcomer Cindy Chavez has some tight boots to fill

By Will Harper

INSIDE HER downtown Victorian home, Cindy Chavez settles on her couch, her cheerful face emerging from a seasonally appropriate red and black sweater.

As she talks, her three kittens ricochet off the walls, chew on Christmas gifts and chase her hand gestures with their paws. She found the trio on the street a few weeks back, shortly after she won the election to represent the downtown district on the City Council.

At first she thought about giving them away to friends, but she got too attached. She had already given them names: Cali, Speedy and Puff the Magic Kitty, whom she nursed back to health from pneumonia.

Is this the shrewd union maven whom business leaders were so afraid of during the campaign?

But appearances can be deceiving.

Kitties aside, this is the same woman who, as the political director of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, steadfastly arm-twisted the City Council to boycott Super K-mart for its labor practices. She also takes a guilty pleasure in cussing.

The Chamber of Commerce and other business interests spent at least $25,000 on independant expenditures for Chavez's opponent, a bright federal prosecutor with a Bellarmine Preparatory School pedigree named Tony West.

And some of them were sore losers. One homeowner posted a sign in the aftermath, "Thanks, Tony. You didn't lose, we did."

Chavez, meanwhile, won with the backing of a rejuvenated local labor machine and Mayor Susan Hammer, who once held the downtown council seat herself.

On the surface, it would seem that Chavez should have won handily--with the support of a popular mayor and union foot soldiers. In reality, however, her victory was narrow, because of other factors working against her.

Unlike her predecessors, she neither comes from a well-to-do neighborhood, as did Rosegarden resident Hammer, nor enjoys the blessing of the Bellarmine boys, as did Tom McEnery.

The historical import isn't lost on Chavez. "This is the crown jewel that no longer belongs to old San Jose," she says openly. "It belongs to all of San Jose."

Right now, though, she has plenty of other tasks in front of her: buying Christmas presents, assembling her staff and making sure Puff doesn't relapse with the lung thing.

But perhaps her most daunting task is filling the politically charged shoes of her enigmatic predecessor, a hard worker popular with constituents but disliked by practically everyone else.

THE SKEPTIC is the rarest of creatures in San Jose's consensus politics. For eight years, David Pandori has relished his unique role as the City Council's resident contrarian.

His colleagues regarded him the way a sixth-grader regards the hall-pass monitor: as an annoying, self-righteous tattletale.

In a somewhat effeminate and often snide voice, Pandori regularly lectured the council for cutting deals behind the scenes, for knowing the outcomes of votes before the opening gavel pounded or--beating one of his favorite dead horses--for accommodating well-connected gambling interests.

His uptight behavior made him an easy target for inside jokes at City Hall. One wag swears that in eight years, no one has ever spotted Pandori entering or exiting the shared bathroom facilities on the sixth floor. "I swear the guy never pees," a former council staffer says.

The law-trained councilman was once a rising star in San Jose politics, the protégé and senior aide to former Mayor Tom McEnery, who successfully ran for the District 3 council seat in 1990 with his boss's help. But Pandori soon found himself at odds with newly elected Mayor Susan Hammer (Pandori was a no-show at the mayor's recent farewell party), causing his political stock to free-fall.

For McEnery and Hammer, the downtown council seat had proved a stepping stone to the mayoral throne. But after his stock bottomed out, few took a Pandori mayoral candidacy seriously.

Being the skeptic had its consequences for Pandori. He even failed to get his handpicked successor, Tony West, elected.

No one ever questioned Pandori's smarts or dedication to his downtown district; people just couldn't stand his self-righteous personality. "Style was his problem, not substance," says Scott Knies, executive director of the Downtown Association.

If Pandori was the hated hall-pass monitor in school, Cindy Chavez was the socialite who got along with everyone from cheerleaders to calculus geeks.

Her charm will go a long way toward getting things done, predicts political consultant Barry Barnes, another person who calls Chavez a personal friend.

"She's going to be much more of a consensus builder than David ever was," Barnes predicts. "Cindy will take office cooperating with people. That will produce results."

CERTAINLY, CHAVEZ'S relationship with new Mayor Ron Gonzales should be infinitely better than Pandori's strained coexistence with Hammer, who treated the downtown councilman like a pebble stuck in her pumps.

Nevertheless, it won't be a love feast between Chavez and Gonzales.

Chavez worked three years for Gonzales when he was a county supervisor and hoped her old boss--an invited guest at her marriage to state legislative aide Mike Potter--would lend his support during the campaign. Instead, Gonzales remained neutral.

"I was disappointed," she acknowledges.

"Ron's goal was to be mayor, not to get me elected to the City Council. That sounds harsh, but that's the way he makes decisions."

Gonzales, meanwhile, has carefully crafted a business-friendly image that won him the support of the Chamber of Commerce during the election. He did so by opposing the labor agenda Chavez championed, including the so-called living wage, which requires some city contractors to pay their employees a minimum wage defined by the city.

Some local pundits suggest that the arms-length relationship Gonzales kept with Chavez during the campaign could continue on the City Council, especially over labor issues.

Chavez presents herself as an idealist, telling people she got into politics to change the world, but ultimately she thinks of herself as a realist.

That's why, she says, she plans to reach out to business leaders (though she admits she remains sore at a few individuals she won't name) and select downtown merchants who sided with Tony West.

Perhaps it is San Jose's fondness for consensus that has nudged business people to start extending a cautious hand toward Chavez, too.

"At first, they [business leaders] will be suspicious because a lot of them don't know her except for her role in the K-mart boycott," says Dan Orloff, co-owner of Orloff & Williams, a downtown-based public relations firm. "We should give Cindy every benefit of the doubt and support her. She is going to be our councilmember for the next four years."

Even Steve Tedesco, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, believes he can work with Chavez on a variety of issues--as long as they don't venture too deeply into labor territory.

He expects to consult with Chavez, as well as other councilmembers, on upcoming debates over thorny matters such as sewage treatment and the airport expansion, which don't have an obvious labor angle to them.

Chavez, the political realist, also knows she must pay heed to the downtown's active neighborhood associations, a powerful political force in District 3.

For all his faults, Pandori, even critics concede, was immensely popular in his district because he skillfully handled the minutiae of filling potholes, trimming trees and installing street lights.

Chavez promises to follow the Pandori neighborhood model.

"No pothole was too small for David to get involved in," Chavez says. "That will not change when I'm there."

And perhaps out of political necessity, Chavez also has declared her support for the upcoming airport traffic relief initiative, a neighborhood-inspired ballot measure that Pandori helped author.

NOW IN THE TWILIGHT of his political career, Pandori seems reflective, maybe even a bit remorseful, surely disappointed and, for a rare moment, conciliatory. "I'm at a point in time in my term where it's actually quite liberating," Pandori told a packed council chamber at one of his last meetings, in which the council debated a union-supported living wage policy that he, to everyone's surprise, ultimately supported. "I'm not running for another office. ... It's a very enjoyable time in politics that many of us look forward to. I'm a supporter of term limits for this very reason: because I was looking forward to these last couple of months of just trying to make decisions based on what you think is truly good for the city."

An adviser to Mayor Hammer listening to Pandori's swan song wondered aloud: Is he saying that all these years he's been making decisions based on politics and not what is good for the city?

That isn't what Pandori intended to say, but for once the majority of his colleagues seem to be agreeing with him.

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From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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